When faced with unexpected hardship, high-ability students may do well but still disengage from math

Updated: May 4

In today’s blog post, we will discuss a paper recently published online first in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology examining the effects of disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic and math ability on undergraduate students’ grades and interest in taking additional math courses.

Svensson, H., Shoots-Reinhard, B., Cravens-Brown, L., & Peters, E. (2022). Greater objective numeracy protects COVID-19 pandemic grades but endangers academic interest. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/stl0000319

You can download the paper for free by using this link.

Prior research has consistently highlighted the benefits of being good at math (i.e., being high in objective numeracy) on academic and broader life-related outcomes, like having better control of chronic medical conditions and improved financial decision-making. In the current study, we were interested in whether being good at math would protect undergraduate students against the potentially negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a study of 399 undergraduate students at The Ohio State University enrolled in an introductory-level data analysis course, we explored the impact of the pandemic on students who varied in their math abilities. We expected that being better at math would protect students from the potentially harmful effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Indeed, students’ course grades during the pandemic were protected by math ability. No differences existed in course grades for high-ability students who experienced more vs. less pandemic-related disruption. However, this was not the case for low-ability students. Low-ability students had worse grades when they experienced more (vs. less) disruption (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Objective numeracy and pandemic-related disruption predict grades during the pandemic

Note: Participants’ grades during the pandemic are reported on a range from 0% to 100%.

However, and of surprise to us, we found the opposite when we examined how math ability and pandemic-related disruption affected students’ interest in taking future math courses. Students high in math ability who also experienced more pandemic-related disruption were less likely to indicate interest in taking additional math courses than high-ability students experiencing less disruption. In fact, by using their transcripts, we discovered that about 30% fewer high-ability students enrolled in an advanced statistics course when they experienced high (vs. low) levels of pandemic-related disruption. For those low in math ability, disruption did not affect interest in taking future math courses (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Objective numeracy and pandemic-related disruption predict future math interest

Participants answered three questions about their interest in taking additional math courses. Math interest was coded such that 1 indicated the lowest likelihood of taking additional math courses (i.e., “very unlikely”) and 6 was the highest likelihood of taking additional math courses (i.e., “very likely”).

These findings suggest that students higher in math ability may perform better—but paradoxically feel worse—when faced with unexpected hardships. As a result, educators need to be mindful of their high-ability students’ struggles because their academic motivation may be less resilient than previously expected and especially during unique times like the pandemic.

This research was supported by a Student Academic Success Research Grant from The Ohio State University and the National Science Foundation.

Key words: objective numeracy, numeric self-efficacy, academic outcomes, COVID-19, higher education

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